Updated — Originally Published April 19, 2011
It’s 1999. My wife and I just moved into our new home with our 3-year-old daughter and infant son – and we pretty much plan to stay here forever. So naturally, we want to do everything right. And setting the kids up with a killer play area is near the top of the list. We had seen some of the redwood and cedar swing sets that were available – and there was no doubt: they were gorgeous. But they were also crazy expensive. After much consideration, we ultimately decided to “bite the bullet” and invest in a high-end set that could hopefully be with us for our grandchildren one day in the distant future. We even had a special name-board made up with the thought that it would always commemorate our first addition to our new home for our kids.
Seemed like a pretty cool “finishing touch” to add…
But can a redwood swing set really last for 30 years?
Flash-forward now to 2015. More than fifteen years have passed, and there’s no question that there’s some significant maintenance required keep these sets looking good and remaining functional. And frankly – some stuff simply has to be replaced as well.
Wooden Swing Set Maintenance Experience & Tips
Tip 1: Cleaning the Swing Set Canopy
Each year, I removed the canopy (the blue/yellow/red tarp) in the spring and brushed it clean in the driveway with a soap and water solution. You have to be very careful not to crease this when removing it, as it can be delicate given the size. It’s cumbersome. For the first few years, this was more of a chore than later – as I initially had the set underneath some trees which eventually had to be cut down. Once the trees were gone, the canopy was spared the pollen and a lot of the staining that seemed to come with being in the cool (moist) shade.
Tip 2: Redwood Stain for the Long Haul
The wood needs to be actively protected. For the first few years, I stained every other year – but after 4-5 years, I started doing it every single year. Use a high-end stain, and plan to spend at least 2-3 hours as there are many nooks and crannies to be covered. Be very careful to avoid getting stain onto the plastic and rubberized pieces. And surely remove any canopy that may be part of your set before you start.
I didn’t really intend the following picture to become a commercial for Cabot stain, but this is simply the brand I used last month. Go high-end, and go with whatever brand you trust.
Tip 3: Cleaning the Swing Chains and Rubberized Steps
This was really an ongoing problem. After the first couple of years, we started to develop black and often sticky build-up on the yellow steps – but much worse were the swing chains the kids had to hold. The swing chains got really sticky. The manufacturer recommended using a product called Magic Eraser which we tried, and it definitely works to some degree. But it was always a matter of increasing effort. Year-after-year, it just seemed to get worse; I couldn’t ever get it back to the “new-looking” condition that I wanted. I don’t know how bad they would look if I hadn’t done this. Major advice: Don’t let this slide!
Tip 4: Dealing with Rotting Wood
The wood will eventually rot, especially where in contact with the ground. One of the legs split completely (perhaps about 7-8 inches from the ground up) in about year nine. To deal with this, I bought a piece of pressure treated hardwood and manufactured a replacement leg myself. I found this was more of a chore than I anticipated when the hardware was stripped as well – so I had to manufacture a new leg and also create custom hardware to affix the leg to the set. In the shot just below, the leg on the right is my custom replacement. I don’t think you can tell by sight, but it feels different to the touch – it’s clearly denser.
The second leg in this A-frame portion of the set is starting to rot as well now. Take a close look at the next photo and you can see it.
I have no intention of creating another custom leg though, as I got a little smarter this time. More to come on that, but first read through the next section because this is equally relevant as well…
Tip 5: Dealing with Insect Damage
Wood will rot, and insects will help it along. With me, it was the carpenter bees. They started showing up regularly in about year seven or so – in the late spring. These bees bore perfect holes deep into your wood (they love dead wood) to lay eggs. Once the eggs hatch they move on, but you now have holes bored into your wood. There are chemicals you can use to keep them away – but these aren’t really good for children, so I never wanted to go this route. One exterminator told me I could shoot something as harmless as hairspray into the holes and it would kill the bees. It didn’t. I tried plugging up the holes as the bees were making them – filled them and stained over them, but they just persevered.
For whatever reason, the bees consistently went after the deck area. The shot above is a major load-bearing support under the deck. Not only does this slowly destroy the structural integrity of the set, but your kids aren’t going to play with it with bees flying all around. I’ve recently heard that sealing the wood with an oil-based stain will actually deter the bees from coming each year. I’ll give that a try moving forward, but it does nothing for the holes that are already bored several inches into the wood today.
Once the holes are made, the wood has been compromised forever.
Tip 6: Using your Wood Play Set Warranty
Here’s where I got a little smarter. Many of these redwood swing sets come with a 15-year warranty; some come with a lifetime warranty. Given my set was so old – this didn’t immediately cross my mind. The details of each contract will vary, of course, but I found that the wood pieces could qualify for replacement if I provided proof (photos) of insect or rot damage. I’ve been working with the manufacturer of my set for the past couple of weeks to move this forward, and I’m quite happy to say that a number of replacement wood parts are now being manufactured and shipped to me. They’ve been wonderful. Some of those parts include the ladder pieces with the black-stained steps – those will all be brand new again soon. I have to pay for the shipping expenses, but that seems fair. You’ll most likely need to be the original swing set owner to do this, and you’ll surely need your receipt – even if (like me) it was from so many years prior.
Tip 7: Buying Swing Set Replacement Parts
If your goal is to have the set for the very long-term, then warranty-aside, you’re going to need to buy some replacement parts. The canopy started to tear on me after about 9 years. I held it together until spring of 2011 (year 11) when I ordered a new one that had to be custom manufactured. It served me well, and installing the new canopy was really quite easy. Less than an hour of effort.
In addition, I decided [at that time] to go for new swings too. The swings (unlike the wood pieces) come with a 1-year warranty, and was ancient history for me. These would once-again look brand new – because they *would* be brand new. Sticky and black-stained rubberized chains (and the non-rubberized now-rusted portions) would soon be perfect again.
For the full 2011 “Renovation” effort – Check out Rehabbing a Redwood Swing Set.
Tip 8: Maintaining the Play Set Mulch
“Wait a minute… weren’t there supposed to be seven tips in this article?”
There were 7 Tips – originally. But this is an extra and important one I added!
Re-mulching around the base of the play area is something I do roughly every 3-4 years. There are various materials you can use, and frankly – you really don’t need to have anything other than soft grass for safety. But from the standpoint of aesthetics – I personally like the look of mulch. The material I use for my set is fiber-based mulch. This is the material you’ll find at many public play areas. It’s quite clean, and once installed (and after a few days) it knits itself to form a nice surface on which you can walk without kicking mulch all over. For my play set area, I usually order 3 cubic yards…
One of the critical things to truly avoid when applying mulch – you do NOT want to bury the redwood footers. While it’s true that redwood (as all woods) will rot over time, there no need to rush it along. And it’s so easy to make this mistake – because this is a quite lot of mulch to apply. Once the mulch is down and spread out nicely, all you need to do is spend 5 minutes clearing it away from the footers a bit as shown in the three shots below.
So, in short – be sure you can see the footers and that they’re as minimally-buried as possible.
Does anyone have any further wisdom or experiences to add? Has anyone had a wooden swing set (redwood, cedar or otherwise) set like this for more than 15 years??